Paying Attention to America's Forgotten Eastern Land Border

By David North on February 16, 2019

We keep hearing about America's southern border, the one with Mexico, and sometimes — by way of contrast — our northern border, the one with Canada.

The first one is where the Wall, or maybe a few miles of fencing, is about to be built; that's the one that is the target of those caravans. When we hear of the northern border in immigration circles, it is sometimes about migrants of dubious legality deciding that they will leave this country and try to reach the more friendly Canadian asylum system (and sometimes freezing in the process). There is some inward flow, southbound, of both legal and illegal immigrants.

But there is a third, more than-1000-mile-long international border that even migration specialists rarely discuss: It is our eastern land border.

The immediate reaction of most readers will be: What are you talking about? Or, do you mean the Eastern Seaboard?

No. The 1,538-mile-long border I am referring to is the one between Alaska on the west and Canada on the east. It runs up the east side of the Alaskan panhandle in a crooked line, and then heads straight north, crossing the Arctic Circle and ending on the frosty shores of the Arctic Ocean.

There is a good reason for the lack of recognition of this border; it causes no problems, not yet anyway, and is crossed by only a handful of new arrivals.

I looked up the list of ports of entry in Alaska the other day and found 12 of them, including such familiar names as Anchorage, Kodiak, and Nome, but nine of the names, including those three, were only for people arriving by air or sea.

There are only three ports of entry, all in the southern third of this border, that you can approach by land from Canada. These are Skagway, and about 60 miles away, the wonderfully named Dalton Cache, both in the panhandle, and both a bit north of Juneau, the only state capital in the United States that you can approach only by air or sea.

The remaining port of entry, which leads to most of the state, is called Alcan and is on the Alaska (or Alcan) Highway, built in a great hurry during World War II. (Thousands of miles further west, several of the Aleutian islands were invaded and occupied by Japan, the only U.S. territory, except Guam and Wake, to have this experience.)

Alcan Port of Entry
Alcan Port of Entry

Alcan, while well below the Arctic Circle is described as follows by Customs and Border Protection:

Alcan, named for the Alaska-Canada highway, is not a city or town. Sitting at mile post 1221.8 on that highway, it is the most remote border entry point in the entire U.S. Alcan is located 300 miles from Fairbanks, the nearest city, and is known for extreme weather conditions. Winter temperatures can sink as low as 70 degrees below zero! Alcan's total population of 33 consists of dedicated CBP agents and their families who say they have learned to deal with the hardships and are proud to be protecting America at this isolated outpost.

Then, for something like 1,000 miles straight up the map there are no legal ports of entry on the land. Presumably there are arrangements under which border crossers, going from east to west, are supposed to voluntarily check in with, say, the authorities at the Fairbanks airport.

One of the pleasant aspects of life in these ports of entry, at least this time of the year, is the ease with which the officers on duty handle the odd phone call from the States. No long robotic messages, no phone queues, no operators, just the guy or the gal on duty, and both of the ones I talked to seemed to be pleased to talk to someone from the Lower 48.

I was checking with one of the ports to make sure that I had the correct names of the three land ports when the lady at the other end volunteered: "Then there's the crossing at Hyder which we do not staff, but the Canadians do. You can drive in but you can't go anywhere from there."

Hyder turns out to be in the panhandle, about 200 miles south, and a little east of Juneau, and Google has this to say about it: "Hyder is a census-designated place in Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area, Alaska, United States. The population was 87 at the 2010 census, down from 97 in 2000."

You know you are in the boonies when you encounter the term "census-designated place".

Topics: Canada, Alaska